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Flash future in the here and now

July 20, 2006

The U3 platform enables mobile computing on a keychain

David Pogue recently blogged about a vision of flash drives “of the future”:

you’d carry around your whole world–not just documents, but programs, settings, e-mail, the works–on your keychain. You’d just plug in to public terminals whenever you wanted to do work.

The only problem with David’s vision is that his “flash future” is here today, in the form of U3 enabled USB flash drives.

U3 drives work just like any other USB drive for data storage and retrieval. In addition they implement the U3 Hardware Specification and a U3 Device API which enables properly packaged Windows applications to execute from within the U3 container. Everything about the apps, including their configuration settings and any personal data generated during execution, resides on the U3 drive. Docs, check. Programs, check. Settings, email, any other bits that you’d need to run your apps, check check check. This enables you to unplug from your PC at work and reconnect to a terminal in the airport, a partner’s laptop at a conference, or anywhere else you can find a system with a USB port. Your apps, configured the way your like them, everywhere.

It all sounds very mobile Java-esque, only I’ve yet to see a cell phone or PDA the size of my thumbnail.

Security is an obvious concern anytime you start carrying around “your digital life” in a tiny little key fob. You could lose the drive (the “I spend half of my life looking for my keys” phenomenon). There are also data security concerns, not the least of which is whether or not a savvy attack on a host computer’s memory might be able to ferret out critical data at runtime. I’d want to dig into the specs before I put anything too terribly sensitive on one myself. And one of the biggest potential problems I see is not being able to find anyone willing to loan you a system and trust (yes, the ‘t’ word surfaces again) that your little USB thingy really does have antivirus software and will keep things clean.

Nonetheless, for many people this could be a handy solution to the problem of having bookmarks and address books and files scattered between at work, home, and laptop computers. If you’re not quite willing to put everything online a la del.icio.us and Yahoo Mail, this just might be workable. Especially since U3 goes much farther than just bookmarks and email. Click here to see a catalog of U3 apps ranging from Mozilla and Skype to OpenOffice and EditPad, and even some games and photo apps and podcast software to boot.

How did we get all of these apps? A developer forum and kit, silly! Click here to get the full details or here to read the dev blog.

David goes on to discuss a reader’s comments that such devices could be a boon for school children since they could allow each student to cheaply carry their books, school work, MySpace bookmarks (oops, not that) wherever they were. In theory this could also cut down on the number of computers required by said USB-toting students. As other readers’ comments point out, though, kids would probably be bad about losing their drives.

I’m convinced the better scenario is for someone like my mother: A PC at work and one at home. Checks email and browses the Web. Edits a document once in a while. Values having the same environment and tools on each computer, and would prefer one archive of docs that’s always available. Not really a Web 2.0 kind of person. U3, we have a winner!

Right now many major USB drive manufacturers are making U3 drives. You can actually get one for pretty cheap if you shop around. In fact, I just bought a SanDisk 1GB Cruzer Micro with U3 last weekend for $20 after rebate. Not bad.

Heck, for that price, maybe I should outfit my Mom with one too. Sure would save me a lot of “Bill, can you help me with my computer” problems…

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3 Comments
  1. JZ37 permalink

    Don’t forget that U3 isn’t the first way to run things portably. There are TONS of apps that will work on ANY flash drive, portable hard drive, iPod, whetever you want. And, best of all, most are free and don’t require you to buy any new hardware. Check out portableapps.com or portablefreeware.com to grabs lots of free apps. Two of the apps you mentioned (firefox and openoffice) on u3 are actually just ports of portable ffox and portble openoffice that will run on any device. They run from anywhere you want… even your desktop. And, best of all, when you’re ready to upgrade to a new flash drive, you can buy any one you want from any manufacturer you want and just copy all your stuff over. U3 doesn’t let you do any of that.

  2. J. Carey permalink

    U3 seems more like a marketing ploy to me, personally, especially after reading some of the criticisms over at the U3 wikipedia entry. It’s incompatible with Mac OS X (and leaves undeletable files behind), it gives users a false sense of security (it doesn’t encrypt any of your data, and there’s already a hack to read any U3 data even if the drive is ‘locked’), it leaves traces behind even though it says it doesn’t, and it’s a closed platform… so only the hardware and software vendors that U3 wants to let in can play. Ceedo is another company doing portable stuff… though their solution is still pretty buggy and also closed. Personally, I’ll stick to using my Portable Firefox, PortaPutty, Opera@USB and other portable apps that run from any usb key I want.

  3. JZ37 and J. Carey make great points. I chose to focus this post on Pogue’s comments and the potential of U3 to address them, but I could (maybe should?) have just as easily written about portablefreeware.com or similar efforts.

    Maybe in a future post.

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